The 3 Dumbest Products Sold By Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods "Whole Body" products.
I have a love-hate relationship with Whole Foods Market. On the one hand, I love their fresh produce, their baked goods, and many other food choices there. On the other hand, they seem to have embraced anti-science positions in the interest of keeping everything “natural.”

Before describing what they do wrong, let’s start with some things they get right. Their seafood sustainability policy supports fishing practices that allow wild fish populations to survive. This is a shining example that other stores would do well to follow, if we want to preserve remaining stocks of wild salmon, tuna, swordfish, and other fish. Whole Foods stores now mark each fish with a sustainability rating shown as a bright-colored label next to each fish. Bravo!

Whole Foods also offers chicken and beef that was raised humanely, following animal welfare standards that they clearly describe on their website and in their stores. For those who care about the way farm animals are treated, this is a valuable option.

But in some areas of the store, especially their “health” section, Whole Foods wades deep into pseudoscience,  So here are the three of the most egregious examples.

1. Whole Foods sells homeopathic medicines that are little more than snake oil. They make claims for health benefits, both on their shelves and on their website, that are based on little more than magical thinking. For example, they sell “homeopathic flu remedies” claiming that “when taken at the first sign of sickness, these can provide temporary relief of symptoms including fever, chills, and body aches.” This is simply false: no homeopathic treatment has ever been shown to be effective at treating flu symptoms. (I’ve written about homeopathy in more detail here and here.)

It’s ironic that on the one hand, Whole Foods proclaimsWe've long believed that consumers have a right to know what's in your food”. But when it comes to homeopathic remedies, they neglect to inform consumers that these remedies do not contain the ingredients on the bottle at all. That's because homeopathic preparations are so diluted that not a single molecule of the original substance remains. Even more absurd, though, is that even if they weren't diluted to nothing, most homeopathic ingredients have never been shown to have any health benefits to begin with.

2. Whole Foods has an anti-GMO policy, adopted across all their stores, that ignores the science of GMOs. They announced last year that they would label all products in their stores to indicate whether they contained Genetical Modified Organisms. They also have announced that they are trying to eliminate GMOs from their shelves. 

Why is Whole Foods opposed to all GMOs? Their answer is simply: 
Crops are currently modified to survive herbicide treatment, produce their own pesticides and resist certain diseases.“
This answer is a true statement, though it does not describe all GMOs, nor does it explain why we should avoid them. For example, golden rice is a form of rice that’s been modified to contain more vitamin A than regular rice - a modification that is designed to prevent blindness in children, particularly in poor, rural regions where rice constitutes a major part of the diet. Golden rice has even been blessed by the Pope. Is Whole Foods opposed to this form of GMO?

And what’s wrong with engineering a crop to resist disease? Some foods would basically disappear from our shelves if we didn’t have disease-resistant versions. For example, the Hawaiian papaya was nearly wiped out by a virus until, in one of the first uses ever of genetic modification, plant scientists created a resistant variety. This saved the industry, and the papaya itself has exactly the same nutritional value it had before.

I suspect that Whole Foods (and many anti-GMO types) are mostly opposed to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO crops, which are modified to allow farmers to use more of Monsanto’s herbicides. I can sympathize with that position - but not with opposing all uses of GMO technology. That’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

3. Whole Foods won’t sell the pain relievers aspirin and ibuprofen, because they’re not “natural." Instead, their Whole Body department sells a wide range of nutritional supplements, for which they make claims such as this
“Not sure which supplement to choose? Grab a full-spectrum wellness or immune support formula. These combinations of herbs, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants are specifically designed to effectively improve overall wellbeing and enhance immune support.“ 
That’s just gobbledygook, but it's carefully worded to avoid FDA regulations. The phrase "enhance immune support" is a common go-to phrase for supplement makers, because it sounds science-y. Not only are supplements mostly useless, but taking megadoses can actually harm you. And there’s no scientific reason to think that “natural” products are better for you. After all, snake venom is 100% natural.

In contrast, ibuprofen and aspirin really work - but you can't buy them at Whole Foods. I continue to shop at Whole Foods for their many excellent food selections. But for anything medical, I shop elsewhere.

South Carolina lawmaker wants to force Creationism down students' throats

Well, it’s happened again. The great state of South Carolina has demonstrated that when it comes to ignorance of science, its legislators take a back seat to no one. They must have been jealous of Kansas, Louisiana, and Texas.

Last week, SC legislator Mike Fair, a Republican, proposed a new standard for teaching high school biology that encourages teachers to teach alternatives to evolution, by which he means creationism. He's been working on this for months; last spring he tried to pass a law that would have required students and teachers to construct arguments against evolution. After failing to get that through his committee, he has proposed a new law that says
“evolution is continually open to and subject to experimental and observational testing.”
Except of course that's not what he really means.

Let’s be clear: Mike Fair doesn’t want evolution to be taught in public schools. Instead, he wants to force students, using the power of government, to adopt his conservative Christian views, which teaches that God created all living things just as they are today, about 6000 years ago (or 4000 years, depending on who you ask). 

Fair has a history of trying to dumb down the teaching of science.  Back in February, he blocked the state education oversight committee from using the phrase “natural selection” in the state science standards. Speaking to the (SC) Post and Courier, Fair said 
“To teach that natural selection is the answer to origins is wrong. I don't think it should be taught as fact.” [Mike Fair, S.C. legislator]
Ignorant barely begins to describe this statement. Mike Fair clearly doesn’t have the faintest grasp of biology or genetics. He’s the last person that anyone should want to weigh in on science standards. His behavior goes far beyond mere ignorance, though: not only is he wrong, but he wants to use the power of the state to impose his religious views, under the guise of science, on every student in South Carolina’s schools. No wonder South Carolina is perennially ranked near the bottom of the country in public education. 

I have a confession to make. I grew up in South Carolina and went through the public schools there, from kindergarten right through high school. I met lots of guys like Mike Fair: popular, plays on the football team, student body president. These guys are usually bullies (we've all seen the movie), and that’s just what Fair is demonstrating now: he wants to bully every teacher, and every child, into listening to his ignorant views of science. I’ve no doubt that if Fair could require prayer in every school — Christian prayer, that is — he’d do that too. I grew up surrounded by this kind of nonsense, but I didn't speak up then because I would have been ostracized. Well, I'm speaking up now. 

Fair and his colleagues in the Republican-dominated S.C. House of Representatives argue that no, they aren’t forcing teachers to teach creationism — they just want to teach the controversy. Equally appalling is the position of the S.C. Superintendent of Education, Mick Zais, who agreed with this sentiment, saying: 
"We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions."
No, you shouldn't. There is no scientific controversy about evolution. Evolutionary theory is based on an enormous edifice of facts, with literally tens of thousands of scientific papers providing evidence to support it. There is no competing theory out there.

Ironically, three years ago Fair introduced a bill to prevent the imposition of Islamic-based Sharia law in South Carolina. He justified this by saying 
A growing concern is the immigration of people who are accustomed to their religion and their civil laws being inextricably connected. For those newcomers to our state, this bill will be helpful to them as they are assimilated into our culture maintaining complete freedom to worship as they please."
Reading this sent my irony meter way into the red zone. Let me see if I understand: Mike Fair doesn’t want religion and civil laws to be “inextricably connected” — but he does want to require that public, state-funded schools teach his religious view of the creation myth. I guess what he meant to say is that it’s okay to mix religious fundamentalism and civil law, as long as it’s Mike Fair's brand of Christian fundamentalism.

South Carolina doesn't need its own set of science standards, nor does Texas, Louisiana, or Kansas. The laws of science don't change when you cross state lines or national borders. Allowing politicians to set science standards is a recipe for disaster, and is one reason why the U.S. continues to lag the rest of the world in science education—as South Carolina has once again demonstrated.